Owner of what may be the tiniest US bookstore looks to create community in Sonoma County
As Stephanie Culen last year sat on a bench outside the shopping village at Duncans Mills, she spotted a 250-square-foot structure that would be a perfect writer’s studio amid the scenic hamlet just north of the Russian River.
Yet Culen readily acknowledged that while she enjoys writing in her journal, she wouldn’t put the building to good use as a writer’s retreat. She distinctly remembered during her graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College that the late author Joseph Campbell had such an office refuge at the Bronxville, New York, campus.
But the tiny building had a hold on Culen, 52, who moved from New York City to Sonoma County five years ago and has had a varied career as a schoolteacher, yoga instructor and most recently in wine sales at Foley Family Wines and Halleck Vineyard.
The idea kept bubbling up inside of her to do something with the space, especially given all the change ongoing with the coronavirus pandemic, ranging from those who moved into the area from larger cities or have quit their jobs to do something more fulfilling.
“I should say many of us were kind of dreaming of like, ‘Well what now?’” she said.
That internal churning ultimately led her to open in early November the Poet's Corner Book Shop. It’s a one-woman business operating out of what might be the smallest bookstore in the United States. Culen is approaching a one-year anniversary in which she’s doing “a little bit better than breaking even” by her own account.
Culen and other owners of small businesses like hers are hoping to tap in to pandemic-weary consumers’ desire to ditch online shopping and home delivery for something tangible, and a sense of shared community.
“This wasn't a dream of mine to have a bookshop,” said Culen as her dog, Bianca, rested upon the one chair near the tiny counter inside. “The dream was what can I offer to the community that I know that I could be good at? That I can create a space to allow people to have an experience — but also to provide a product that will be purposeful, useful and beautiful?”
The store sells a mix of books from beach reads to Walt Whitman poems to a recent book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. It also offers up unique gifts such as a Cabin Porn calendar featuring cozy structures and children’s games such as glow-in-the-dark puzzles.
But Culen said she realized that in her journey from the bench to the now daily visits from the UPS driver dropping off boxes that there was something grander in her plans. That something couldn’t be summed up in a business plan template or first-year revenue projections. It was about helping to create community.
“This (pandemic) isn't going to last forever,” she said. “We people are going to want to come together. People are going to want to touch books again.
“They’re going to want to get off Zoom meetings and get off computers and they’re going to want to touch paper. They’re going to want to be out in the world … and share stories and share ideas. And I have a strength of creating experiences for people.”
Culen is not alone in that view, as other small business entrepreneurs also believe that after 19 months since the onset of the pandemic that more people are inclined to ditch the digital lifestyle of shopping from Amazon, food delivery from Grubhub and entertainment from Netflix for more communal activities. They contend that local merchants can have an upper hand against their digital rivals.
That’s the case with Tifani Beecher and Melissa Stewart, two local women who recently opened Dandelion, a new store at Montgomery Village. The store features a mix of clothing for children and moms. They also wanted to craft a space for children’s programs with a pint-sized portrait studio along with a floral cart inside the store.
“We are trying to create a sense of community,” Beecher said.
Avid Coffee also is looking to strengthen its ties within the county with by participating in more events as well as local charitable efforts, said owner Rob Daly. The local company, which was formerly named Acre Coffee, was a prime gathering place pre-pandemic with a large variety of customers ranging from students to moms to retired folks. Some of its pre-pandemic on-site business has been recaptured by the addition of more outdoor seating.
“I think it’s less of a business strategy than a cultural shift,” Daly said of efforts by businesses to foster more community. “I think coming out of (the pandemic) and finding ways to really connect outside of our four walls is I think is going to be a valid direction for everybody.”